In the ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, post-truth world, journalism and professional communications face similar issues around reputation.
In a double-barrelled assault, these industries find themselves increasingly challenged by the turn away from fact and evidence towards emotion and motivated reasoning at the same time that the value of expertise has become diminished.
An eight-country study aims to address this by assisting professional bodies, organisations and individuals frame their professional development.
Funded by the University of Huddersfield, the study is being undertaken for the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management and specifically designed to capture more voices to reflect cultural variations of practice.
Discussing the preliminary findings of the Global Capabilities Framework research at an industry roundtable in Melbourne hosted by RMIT and Cropley Communication’s Centre for Strategic Communication Excellence, RMIT Adjunct Professor and University of Huddersfield Professor Anne Gregory highlighted the importance of ethical and responsible communication.
“The challenges in this ‘new world’ impact on judgements about the professional integrity of public relations and journalists a like,” she said.
“Capabilities are the big picture statements across the discipline that define a profession.”
“There is a stronger consciousness among communication practitioners of their contribution to society, not just to their organisations.”
She also noted that listening to the concerns of people was more important than ever, citing University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Professor Jim Macnamara’s research that found most organisations use 80% of their resources on ‘telling’ rather than ‘listening’.
Attended by senior communication professionals, the roundtable deliberated on whether ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ are new phenomena or are merely repackaged iterations of propaganda and publicity that have been common in every era.
Adjunct Professor Noel Turnbull noted that ‘fake news’ is not new, suggesting that this practice has been going on for hundreds of years, except that this time more people are generating them and spreading them faster with the more ubiquitous internet.
The digital media and big data analytics environment offer the potential to personalise and customise information to individuals that could also pose major ethical dilemmas to practitioners.
Although these approaches can achieve audience reach and ‘engagement’, they can also be highly manipulative and raise issues of ethical judgment.
The group shared examples of how automation, robots and algorithm-generated information and news combined with personality profiling had been particularly powerful during the US presidential and Brexit winning campaigns.
Adrian Cropley, past global chair of the International Association of Business Communicators and event co-host, stressed that “we need to develop greater capabilities in building relationships and gaining trust.”
RMIT journalism lecturer Gordon Farrer, chief investigator for the new RMIT ABC Fact Check unit echoed the need for rebuilding trust and credibility.
“In the face of a determinedly anti-media, anti-expert political culture, journalism, especially, needs to rebuild and maintain trust, credibility and authority,” he said.
It’s no exaggeration to say that nothing less than the future of democracy itself is at stake.”
Dr Marianne Sison, leader of the Australian component of the global study and convenor of the roundtable, stressed the need to revisit practitioner capabilities in the rapidly changing media environment.
“As researchers we are interested to know the capabilities industry needs to respond to this new environment. And as educators we have the responsibility to combat these threats and instil among our students the values of integrity and credibility in our communication.”
To prepare future journalism, media and communication practitioners, the group identified the importance of human psychology, ethics, understanding how opinions are formed in order to distill emotion from fact, and how to embed the value of truth in all forms of communication practice.
The increasingly instrumentalist and commercial approaches employed by both media and higher education institutions were also blamed for the shifts in the development of professional communication education and training.
The group agreed that more engagement between industry and academia, and between journalism and public relations is needed to better prepare students for the common challenges they face in their future practice.
Story: Dr Marianne Sison